The US is on the verge of abandoning a key global advantage: Honest data about itself

Right, but who lives there?
Right, but who lives there?
Image: NASA Earth Observatory/Robert Simmon/Suomi NPP VIIRS data/Chris Elvidge
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In another case of the “America First” president cutting off his nose to spite his face, Donald Trump is considering the appointment of someone with no background in statistics to run the US census. Running a shoddy survey, out of political opportunism or simple incompetence, would compromise one of the great advantages of the United States: Trusted data about who Americans are, how they work, and where they live.

Each decade, the census compiles the basic characteristics of the US population; it is accompanied by the annual American Community Survey, which fills in additional social and economic data.

The census is mandated by the constitution for a fairly obvious reason: A representative government has to know who it is representing, and divvy up the votes accordingly.

The Trump administration wanted Thomas Brunell, a political scientist known for his arguments in favor of packing districts with members of one party, to become census director. After pushback from lawmakers who must approve the pick, he is now under consideration for deputy census director, according to Politico.

Voting-rights advocates are critical of Thomas because they fear he will work to advantage Republicans ahead of the 2020 re-drawing of the congressional map. Even seemingly small choices like where and how much to spend on advertising the census could affect the final results of the survey.

Typically, both top census positions are held by a non-partisan statistical expert, and not just to protect democracy. The census is also vitally important to the economy, for three reasons.

First, it helps policymakers understand what’s happening so they can make appropriate laws. “Knowing what’s happening in our economy is so desperately important to keeping our economy functioning smoothly,” said Maurine Haver, an economist who runs a data analysis company, told the New York Times in 2012, when Republicans were considering cancelling the American Community Survey. “The reason the Great Recession did not become another Great Depression is because of the more current economic data we have today that we didn’t have in the 1930s.” Indeed, during the Great Depression, Congress scrambled to figure out what was going on in the country by authorizing special unemployment surveys. The lack of data left them a step behind.

Second, the data collected by the Census Bureau direct hundreds of  billions of dollars in government spending, on everything from Medicaid to community development grants. To get the most bang for the public-spending buck, it’s important that it be directed to the places that need it most; a bad survey increases the odds of wasteful public spending.

Third, census data provide a useful tool for private businesses to plan their investments. When a retailer is wondering where to put a new store, or an aspiring entrepreneur is trying to convince a bank that there are enough customers in the area to justify a loan, they use data from the Census Bureau. When a telecommunications company is deciding where to spend its money laying down new fiberoptic cables, it uses data from the Census Bureau. When real estate developers are considering where to start building, they use—you get it.

All this information is part of America’s economic advantage. As Sarah Boumphrey, a researcher at Euromonitor International, wrote in October, “national statistics are not often the priority of cash-strapped governments. Quality of data can be questionable—because of outdated methodologies, a lack of technology or political bias or corruption. For a business looking to evaluate markets and to lessen risk this adds complications and uncertainty to the decision-making process.”

She was writing about emerging markets, but at a time when American experts are worried that under-funding will lead to a “crisis” during the next census, it’s becoming harder to say the US is any different.